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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Getting the Odds on Your Side at Video Poker

30 June 1997

Know-it-alls who couldn't tell a roulette wheel from a tire-balancing machine are quick to say you can't beat the casino because the house "always has the odds." These folks, as usual, aren't the experts they regard themselves. First, you can win when the house does have the odds. Second, you can find betting strategies for most games so the house doesn't have the odds.

Most players comprehend the first point. Some just call it luck. Others consider it fate. And a few realize it's nothing more mysterious than probability and statistics.

The second point is more elusive, yet more important. Not many solid citizens understand how to manipulate the odds, let alone what happens when they do. Worse, those who think they're wagering wizards often falsely believe improving their odds amounts to cutting the house edge or advantage built into every game.

I'll give you example. It's based on optimum decisions for a particular deuces-wild video poker machine with a five-coin maximum. A natural royal returns 4,000 coins for a five-unit bet; payback is 96 percent - giving the house 4 percent edge. Similar reasoning could be applied to other slots or table games.

Ignore "pushes," which the machine calls "wins" but are really stand-offs because you just get your money back. On each non-pushed bet, this machine offers 76.5 percent chance of losing and 23.5 percent chance of winning. The odds of winning something on any hand therefore favor the house by 76.5-to-23.5, or 3.25-to-1.

Say you want to invest your gambling stake trying for a video poker jackpot. Fine. To shoot for this goal on this machine, pump in five coins at once until you succeed or go bust. The house will have 4 percent edge and 3.25-to-1 odds of winning each hand.

Instead, suppose your goal is to earn a modest profit while not totally closing the door on the jackpot. Then mull this over.

Buy 100 coins, for instance $25 worth of quarters. Put four in your fanny-pack, the other 96 into a bucket. The 96 will define a "session" of 12 "rounds," each with an eight-coin bankroll.

Start each round by playing one coin. On a push, play the coin again. On an actual win, cash out so the money falls into the tray and add the seven coins remaining in the bankroll, completing the round with a profit of at least one unit.

If the initial bet loses, play two coins. On a push, play the two again. On a win, cash out and add the five coins left in the bankroll, ending the round with a profit of at least one unit.

If the second bet loses, go to five coins for your third try. Repeat on a push. End the round on a win or loss. You'll either have at least a two-unit profit or will lose the eight coins.

For every such round, your chance of winning from one to 4,000 coins is 55 percent; that of losing eight units is 45 percent. House edge is still 4 percent, but the odds of winning something in each round are in your favor by 55-to-44, or 1.23-to-1.

There's no magic in this regressive betting system because amounts and probabilities balance. Losing a round costs exactly eight coins. Winning a round might mean a pot of gold, but it only guarantees a one-unit profit. So it's possible to win 10 of the 12 rounds and still be six coins in the hole.

How can this information help you? By showing you can get the odds of winning on your side. And showing you can make those odds increasingly favorable by accepting progressively smaller wins or lower chances at big scores for the same initial stake.

How can this information hurt you? By creating the erroneous impression that raising the odds you'll win a session or round is tantamount to cutting the house's edge. The poet, Sumner A Ingmark, didactically deflated any such delusion thusly:

The house edge is immutable.
A fact, though irrefutable,
Most bettors find inscrutable.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.